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Skill, Restraint, and Deadly Force: A police story

 

 

The Indie   5:48, April 1, 2007

On the morning of March 15th, Billy Ray Surrett lost his job. The day went downhill after that. He began drinking. By mid-afternoon, he’d allegedly fired several .410 shotgun rounds—one into a car occupied by his wife, Heather Surrett—and smashed the windshield with his fist. Then he retreated into his mobile home on Bear Creek Road in Leicester, thinking he’d killed her. Fortunately, he was wrong. She hadn’t been hit and went to Asheville to file charges. (This wasn’t Surrett’s first brush with the law. There were also reports that he had a history of major mental illness.) Events were about to take another potentially deadly turn.

Aware of last year’s fatal shootings of suspects by local law enforcement officers, Surrett’s brother, sister, and a female family friend named Sims sped to Bear Creek Road, hoping to defuse the situation before BCSD arrived. Sims entered the trailer, where she found Surrett suicidal and unwilling to give up his gun. Outside, deputies with rifles surrounded the residence. A hostage negotiator established telephone communications. Surrett allegedly shot at deputies several times during the tense three-way standoff that ensued. Lt. Dale DenOuden was slightly wounded in the head by a pellet of birdshot.

When Surrett finally relinquished his shotgun and walked out to an uneventful arrest, nobody was happier to see him unhurt than the two arresting officers, Captain Wayne Welch and Sheriff Van Duncan. Duncan’s voice busted its buttons with pride when he later told me, “Our deputies showed a tremendous amount of skill and restraint. I’m very pleased.” DenOuden, who leads of one of the department’s two Response (SWAT) Teams, had a more aw shucks response: “It went really well.”

Prior to his election as sheriff, Duncan talked about creating Crisis Intervention Teams (CIT) to handle life-threatening confrontations, particularly when mental illness or substance abuse is involved. These teams would differ from the SWAT approach by adding a hostage negotiator to the mix. The negotiator would attempt to establish contact with a suspect, whether or not there are hostages, and seek a peaceful solution. CITs have yet to materialize in departmental policy. But Duncan considers the Surrett case an example of what he’d like to see. “We were able to handle this situation like a Crisis Intervention Team would handle it,” he said. “We had the chance to gather information first and knew what we were facing. Second, we had deputies who were well-trained, including some Response Team members. Third, we had a hostage negotiator.”

The Sheriff’s Perspective
In fact, the negotiator and the four officers who established the perimeter around Surrett’s home were exceptionally well-trained for their roles. Joining DenOuden on the front line were the leader of the department’s other Response Team, the department’s firearms instructor, and an officer with more than two years experience in Iraq. Each carried an assault rifle accurate well beyond 200 yards. Surrett’s .410, they knew, had a fraction of that effective range.

The initial plan was to contain Surrett in the trailer, outside his firing range but inside theirs, while telephone negotiations proceeded. But the presence of extra people altered the equation. Sims, fearful that the deputies intended to kill her friend, was in and out of the mobile home. The brother and sister maintained positions between officers and the trailer.

Lt. Dale DenOuden“Family members being there meant we had to be closer than we wanted to be in case he came out shooting and they needed immediate aid,” DenOuden said. He and another deputy advanced to a well house about fifty yards from the mobile home and took cover. Sims and the others refused instructions to get out of the way. “They kept calling us killers and said we wanted to shoot him,” DenOuden told me. “The family members said they wanted it to end peacefully. I said we did too. Then he started shooting at the deputies out the back window.” DenOuden was wounded at the well house.

I asked DenOuden whether the family’s presence might have influenced the decision to hold fire when deputies had a clear shot at a man who was shooting at them. “No,” he said, mainly because of the short effective range of .410 birdshot. “He shot me, but we didn’t shoot back,” he reiterated.

Telephone negotiations and Sims’ in-person efforts were touch and go. About an hour and forty-five minutes passed before Surrett surrendered. “He was very upset and emotional,” Welch recalled. “It was more mood swings than just from drinking. I kept telling him we didn’t want him to get hurt. The female in the trailer with him did a good job of helping talk him out.”

Surrett’s intoxication and emotional instability led the sheriff’s department to take him to Mission Hospital for a mental health / substance abuse commitment evaluation. (The criteria for involuntary hospitalization include the presence of a mental illness or substance abuse problem and dangerousness to self or others.) Duncan and Welch were taken aback by the hospital’s decision not to commit. “I was surprised when I heard he hadn’t been committed,” said Welch. “I thought he needed help, or I would have had him taken straight to jail on the warrants we had on him.” Following his release from the emergency room, Surrett did go to the Buncombe County Detention Facility. He remains there, charged with two counts of attempted murder.

Another View
Dissatisfied with press coverage of the incident, Ms. Sims wrote a long letter to the Asheville Citizen-Times and WLOS TV. In it she gives her perspective on Mr. Surrett and the events of that March evening. Her account is a gripping testament to the level of distrust present in some parts of this community as well as the panic associated with trying to help a suicidal man as he’s being surrounded by officers with guns. (Read Ms. Sims’ letter below.)

The Aftermath
Factors leading to the medical decision not to commit Surrett are unknown, due to the confidentiality of medical records. However, representatives of Mission Hospital and Broughton State Hospital in Morganton were able to speak generally about the realities of public inpatient care for involuntary cases such as this might have been. Mental health reform in North Carolina has resulted in more rather than less pressure on state hospital beds. Cuts in the number of those beds available to acutely ill and dangerous patients may be stressing the inpatient system dangerously close to its own breaking point.

Jon Berry, Chief Financial Officer and media spokesman for Broughton, confirmed press accounts of overcrowding at his hospital and sister institutions. Recently, he said, the NC Division of Health and Human Services implemented an admission diversion protocol for state hospitals. It kicks in when the patient census reaches 110% of maximum capacity. In other words, when Broughton has 10% more patients than officially approved beds to put them in, the state says the hospital can close its doors to admissions. But desperately ill and dangerous people continue to flow into emergency rooms throughout the region.

To find beds for them, Berry told me, calls first go out to the other state hospitals. If an open bed is found, the patient is transported there. When all state hospitals are closed to admission, the state has backup contracts with psychiatric units at Grace Hospital in Morganton and Frye Regional Medical Center in Hickory. But these facilities may also be full or unwilling to admit a patient suspected of having a problem the unit can’t handle. (High violence potential, for example, may torpedo community hospital admission.) If nothing is available statewide, the referring emergency room is told to hold the patient and call Broughton again after eight hours.

Speaking on behalf of Mission, Janet Moore said that there were already occasional Broughton transfer delays before the state hospital bed cuts and implementation of the diversion protocol. So far, the longest Mission Emergency Department wait for a committed—and by definition unwilling—patient has been approximately 24 hours.

Meanwhile, mental health services in the Buncombe County Detention Facility have expanded in recent years, thanks to cooperation between the sheriff’s office and local health agencies. A jail mental health worker told me that she’s based there fulltime. A psychiatrist is also on-site for a few hours each week. Evaluations and treatment are routinely available for inmates with severe mental illness or substance abuse issues. At any given time, 40-60 of the jail’s 440 inmates are likely to be receiving these services. Inmates whose mental health or substance problems place them at especially high risk for re-arrest may also be eligible for “wraparound” community-based treatment and housing assistance after leaving jail.

The Crisis Intervention Team
Back at the sheriff’s department, plans to implement the CIT approach to deadly force confrontations are ongoing. Chief Deputy Don Reavis offered this status report: “Right now we’ve got about five people who are interested in being trained in hostage negotiation. We’re just looking for the best school that meets our needs.”

May their search be brief and successful.

—Michael Hopping
copyright © 2007 all rights reserved


 

The View From Inside the Trailer

The following email was sent to the Asheville Citizen-Times and WLOS TV. Many thanks to Jordan Schrader of the Citizen-Times for passing it along. Ms. Sims is a hard woman to contact. I was successful only once—briefly and perhaps by accident. But she graciously allowed her account to be published here in its entirety. MH

I am writing this letter to respond to the Asheville newspaper and WLOS news reporting media about the shooting that happened in Leicester Thursday March 15, 2007. Since everyone has seen and heard all the bad things about Mr. Surrett and the events that happened that day, I think that it is only fair to let people know the other side of Mr. Surrett. I am by no know means going to try to make Mr. Surrett sound like a saint, because he is not, What he done was very wrong and he broke the law. I have often wondered what would make someone just snap. I now know that it can be the very life that we all live everyday, but what about the ones that aren’t as fortunate as some of us, by that I mean everything in our life just goes good everyday and for the most part we are  happy everyday. Does that mean that us lucky ones should just push the mentally unstable to the wayside? I think not. But we live in a society that doesn’t care about the mentally ill. Then when something like this happens they wonder why and are very quick to judge the person that has committed the crime without knowing the entire situation.

I am one of those happy people, thanks to GOD. As much as I wished that everyone could have had happy childhoods, like myself, and lead a happy adult life, as I do. Unfortunately not all of us are that lucky. Thursday I saw the total opposite of happy. It still bothers me to imagine the despair that I saw and heard come from a dear friend. So I just wanted people to know that there is another side to story and the person. I am not guessing at the events that happened Thursday MARCH 15, 2007 because I was there first hand in that trailer with my friend and by my choice not by any kind of force.

First off, the law enforcement was called by Mr. Surretts landlord, who had also talked to Billy and knew that something else was going on mentally and it wasn’t just because he was drinking. He asked Billy if he wanted him to call his family and Billy said yes, so he called his sister. I am not sure what his landlords name is, but you know who you are, and I just want to thank you for making that phone call because I honestly think Billy would be dead today if we hadn’t got there first. What no one cared to put into the paper is that Billy has a mental illness, but also he has been alcohol free for over nine months. Even though when his wife spoke with them at the magistrates’ office she told them he was bipolar and schizophrenic and very paranoid. Did they take that into consideration? I cant say one way or the other for sure but I have my opinion.

I arrived at Billy’s house with his sister and his younger brother. As for me, no I am not his brother or sister but Billy is my friend, whom I care a lot about. I called Billy on the phone and asked him if I could come in and talk with him. He said yes and unlocked all his locks because he had barricaded himself in after the landlord had told him he had called the law. The officers were told by his wife that paranoia was one of Billy’s mental issues. When I entered the trailer Billy was crying, I held him for a while and we talked, like we always do. I saw total despair in Billy and asked him what was going on. He told me things that was bothering him… he lost his job that morning, thought he had hurt his wife, and things that has been bothering him about his little girl and he just didn’t feel like living any longer. NOW mind you this was before the police arrived. So from this so called gun wielding criminal, as was reported, you know what he wanted most from me? He wanted me to pray with him. And we did. Never at any time that I was in that trailer with my friend was I ever scared that he was going to hurt me. He is my friend and I know, because I have seen him at some pretty low points in his life, that he would have never hurt me. At one point he was going to kill himself, went so far as to put the gun in his mouth and cocked it and I just put my hand over the trigger and told him no, he couldn’t end it that way because he knew where he would go. He told me to leave because he didn’t want me to see it and I told him no, that if he was leaving this world today, then he was leaving knowing that I was there with him. My friend was looking out for me, he didn’t want me to have that picture in my mind for as long as I lived. But I will tell you that Billy wanted to die Thursday, March 15, 2007. I have thanked GOD every night that he didn’t. I went outside to get Billy a cigarette, and as I was going back in I saw the swat team coming through the field behind Billy’s house. Evidently so did he, because he wouldn’t let me come back in. He is a paranoid schizophrenic, who if he wouldn’t have seen them I could and would have had him out of the house and they could have arrested him for the charges his wife had on him and that would have been the end of it. But instead he saw them surrounding him. He knew if he shot at them they would start shooting back and he would get his wish of dying without having to risk going to hell by doing it himself. At that point I heard the first shot from inside the trailer and I thought Billy had killed himself. Then I heard another from inside the trailer so I knew he was still alive, his sister and brother and myself were in the front yard, telling Billy not to shoot anymore, I can tell you there was not 12 shots fired, I remember 4 maybe 5. On the news Thursday and Friday they said that he came out of the house shooting. That is very untrue. The only time he came out of the house was when his sister and I led him to the officers. I know what Billy done was wrong, but I also know that Billy was no where near being himself that day; he is a good guy that just snapped. But come on here; let’s tell the whole story instead of just one side. I am very sorry a police officer was injured, but I can tell you he didn’t try to talk Billy out of giving up his weapon, as it is stated in Friday’s paper. None of those police officers even spoke to Billy that were there except for one, and that was Wayne Welsh and that was over the phone because I spoke with him myself while I was in the trailer with Billy. I also was on the phone with him as we were walking Billy out of the trailer. I do thank Mr. Welsh for keeping his word. I know it sure is amazing that Billys aim was good enough drunk and mentally disturbed that he could hit someone with one pellet from 50 yards away with a 410 shotgun. Ok, they say that’s what happened. I have to believe that’s true or not. Looking back to the end of the ordeal, when they had Billy in custody it was as if those officers were heroes. SO let me tell you my take on those heroes that were there that day. If, THE THREE OF US WOULD HAVE MOVED OUT OF THEIR LINE OF FIRE, LIKE THEY WERE HOLLARING AND SCREAMING FOR US TO DO …. THOSE HEROES WOULD HAVE RIDDLED THAT TRAILER WITH GUNFIRE AND TOOK A HUMAN LIFE OF SOMEONE WHO NEEDS MENTAL HELP. THEN A SISTER, A BROTHER AND A FRIEND WOULD HAVE STOOD BY TO SEE IT.
  
The whole thing could have been avoided and they could have just arrested him for the charges his wife had filed if they would have just waited and let me get the gun, BECAUSE in the end, that’s what happened anyway. His friend and family got the gun from him and led him out to be arrested. But instead they had to make him feel like a cornered dog. And I feel that’s about as much respect as they had for him. They sure didn’t care the he has a mental illness and he has been in jail since Thursday night and yet to get any medicine or even be evaluated, like we were told that would happen. IM just somewhat disturbed by that whole scene that I saw Thursday. I am a law abiding, tax paying, GOD fearing Christian who will now always wonder if our police are really here to protect and serve. May GOD bless them all and help them sleep at night.
 
SINCERELY
F.SIMS, C. WILSON, C.REECE. J.GUFFEY, H.SURRETT

 

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